Published on 2014/06/09

Graduate Education Not Worth the Price of Admission … But It Can Be

AUDIO | Graduate Education Not Worth the Price of Admission … But It Can Be
Changes need to be made to graduate-level programming to ensure students receive value for the price of admission.

The following interview is with Ashley Sanders, a doctoral candidate in history at Michigan State University. Sanders blogs with Gradhacker and has written extensively on the topic of financial literacy and advice for graduate students. In this interview, Sanders discusses the goals and aims of graduate students, how their degree programs can help them achieve these outcomes and whether the costs of entry create too significant a barrier for prospective graduate students.

1. Based on your experience and that of your colleagues, why do most students pursue graduate education?

Most students go in to pursue a specific field they’re very passionate about, and some enjoy teaching. Unfortunately, this leads to the unrealistic expectation that when they graduate, they will become professors. Especially in the humanities, there are fewer and fewer tenure tracks, professorships, available. Many times when a job opens up, it’s usually for an adjunct position or a lecturer position rather than a full-time tenure-track position.

2. Do you think students should be pursuing a graduate degree if they’re looking to gain an advantage in the non-academic labor market?

I’ve been in my program for six years, going into my seventh, and usually people have to plan about two years for the job search to find something. I really don’t think — from my own experience, from that of my colleagues, from looking at the market numbers — this is really the best way to pursue a career outside of academia.

3. What are some of your ideas of how people can gain a leg up in the non-academic labor market without going through a PhD program?

My best advice would be to pursue the career you’re interested in right out of undergrad because, often times, even with a master’s degree, you’re still overqualified for many of the jobs you’d be applying for. As soon as you know what career you’re most interested in, if it’s not in academia, I would really recommend getting into that career path, into an organization, and working your way up. You can get more training, other degrees, certifications, along the way, but, really, get out there, get started.

4. What changes do universities have to make so their graduate-level programming and post-baccalaureate certificates better meet the needs and expectations of their students?

That’s a conversation that’s happening in a lot of different places right now. The Modern Language Association released a report that directly addresses this question. The biggest [change needed] is funding. If schools are going to accept graduate students, they need to fund them to the completion of that student’s program.

The other big issue this report suggests is that the time to completion is far too long for many graduate students. Especially in the humanities, time to completion is usually close to 10 years [for a PhD program].

Finally, creating differentiated paths to the completion of the degree will be important. One path would be the traditional academic route, where you’re working at articles along the way, you’re presenting at conferences and you’re writing a traditional dissertation that you can publish as a monograph. Another stream would be more focused on training for jobs outside of academia. In both of them, you can incorporate more training and technological skills and digital literacy, but that would be especially important to those pursuing a non-academic route.

Graduate students really need training and transferrable skills that an employer can look at and understand what they’re seeing on a resume. Many graduate students fund their education by teaching, which is great, but it also doesn’t provide training in other skill areas.

[Higher education administrators] really need to sit down and think through what they’re training their students for and what outside resources they can draw in to help provide their students both knowledge and skills.

5. How important is sticker price for graduate students when they choose an institution?

Outside of professional schools like law and medicine, I don’t think many graduate or prospective graduate students are aware of the sticker price of graduate education. My advice would be to not pursue graduate education unless they receive a full funding package. It is very expensive if you’re paying for it out of pocket or having to take out loans and taking that much time out of the labor market; [it] means that by the time you enter the labor market, you’re behind the curve.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about the expectations and real value of graduate education for the average graduate student, and what institutions need to change in order to make graduate education more viable and valuable?

The value of a PhD is really hard to place a number on. Most people who go through a PhD program and finish would say there’s a great deal of intrinsic value in it, and that can’t be discounted.

At the same time, I also wonder if I could have gotten the types of jobs I am now applying for without it. There’s definitely more to take into consideration than just the financial aspect of it, but it is a very important and very real part of making that decision.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Key Takeaways

  • Higher education institutions need to create distinct academic and non-academic streams in their graduate programs to ensure all students are able to achieve their desired outcomes.
  • The cost and time to completion of graduate programs are the most significant barriers, both of which may create issues when it comes to finding work after graduation.
  • Graduate degrees can have significant personal value for those who pursue them, but prospective students must also consider the potential return on investment prior to enrolling.

Readers Comments

nontrad 2014/06/09 at 6:10 pm

The opportunities that exist for PhD students and graduates are very different from what they used to be, not the least of which is the dearth of tenure-track positions now available. Unfortunately, this creates a chill in PhD education, with fewer people pursuing that credential now than before.

What institutions could do to offset this trend is offer microcredentialing within a PhD program. For example, if, three years in, a student realizes the program is not the right path, he or she could at least leave the PhD track with some credentials and transferable skills to help in the job search. Many people stick it out for the seven or so years it takes to finish a doctorate because, right now, to leave half-finished is to leave with nothing to show for the effort. That makes people hesitant to start the program in the first place.

Hickson R 2014/06/10 at 10:03 am

I agree with Sanders that people should build their education as they move through their career, studying what is needed at the time it’s needed. The market has become such that you can’t anticipate the job you’ll have five years down the road, and settling on a graduate degree early in your career locks you into a field whose future you can’t confidently predict.

Mike H 2014/06/10 at 5:28 pm

I may have the unpopular opinion here, but I have little patience for graduate students who pursue their degrees with unrealistic expectations of lifelong, fulfilling careers in tenured positions. It’s common knowledge that this simply hasn’t been the trend for the last two decades or so. If you still choose to pursue a degree with your head in the sand, you should receive no sympathy when you reap its consequences.

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